Team Robins’ role in ensuring aircraft operability is vital

  • Published
  • By Jenny Gordon
  • Robins Public Affairs
Two F-15 fighter jets were scrambled over the Atlantic Ocean during the long Memorial Day holiday weekend in response to phone threats targeting multiple commercial flights.

North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, deployed the aircraft, responding to initial threats reported by Maryland police, which led to the escort of Air France Flight 22 to New York's John F. Kennedy Airport. 

According to news reports, once the aircraft landed, a search was conducted and nothing was found. The FBI, which was leading the investigation into the threats, also searched United Flight 63 from Madrid to New Jersey. Nothing was found on that flight, and it was later cleared.

Among other flights affected by the threats, there was a Delta flight from London to New Jersey, and a Delta flight from Paris to Boston, but no threats were found.  

Although the incidents over the holiday weekend resulted in passengers and crews returning home safely, the quick response by F-15s speaks to the importance of Robins maintaining these aircraft when our nation calls   for help.

Rev it up!
On the Robins flight line, there's a dedicated area where an F-15 Eagle is departing from one of several bays as it readies for a functional test flight.

From the moment its engines rev up, to taxiing onto the runway and taking    off, a single persistent thought crosses the minds of those watching - the work day isn't a success until that test pilot returns safely. 

On average, an aircraft can spend 16 days in functional testing. Jets don't sit very long - fix 'em then fly 'em quickly so they can do what they were made to do.  

There's no room for error here. Sure, the word safety is bounced back and forth among colleagues in meetings - its undeniable message is proudly on display.

Step into their world
Step into the world of the F-15 Functional Test Flight, and you realize you're part of a significant movement.  

The floors inside each bay where an F-15 is parked is spotless. Not because it's easier to find things when every piece of equipment has its place, but because it's a simple matter of safety.

"It's a big deal out here with live aircraft," said Joseph Pope, F-15 mechanic. "The main thing everyone looks out for is the next person. You may not see something someone else does, especially when you have different parts of a plane moving." 

Foreign object damage, or FOD, has no business anywhere near this place. Take for example an unassuming drill bit. Forget that it's nearby, and it could get sucked into an F-15 intake. That's enough to create a multi-million dollar headache. 

For the flight, the work is out in the open; everyone's accountable, and if someone gets sloppy, things can go downhill fast. Lives are on the line.

It's a Family
The functional test team has 120 members who take ownership of their work environment. Ask them, and they'll all tell you it's like a family, and when you're family, you take care of one another. You trust each other, and you know what the other side is doing.               

By the time an F-15 reaches functional test, some 18,000 hours' worth of maintenance has already been done to the aircraft. Basically, a lot of hands and tools have touched nearly every inch of that metal. 

Chuck Hodges, an F-15 mechanic, explained that crews must depend on each other. It can be deadly when you don't watch what you're doing. 

"We're very safety conscious from the time we get here until we leave," said Hodges, a former police officer. "We've got constantly moving flight controls. While I may be doing engine runs or ops checks up front, I can't see what others are doing, so I've got to depend on their knowledge, their training and communication. There's a lot of trust involved." 

"Bottom line, when a pilot gets in that seat and takes off, he's our responsibility until his feet touch the ground," he continued. "Our goal is to come to work, work on this plane and fly it, and go home to our families."

Gold Standard
The flight is so safety conscious that it recently got recognition for achieving the Voluntary Protection Program's Gold designation. It's a pretty big deal when you know you've come this far, yet many are merely humbled by the honor and silently wave it off. It's been well over 600 days since the last safety incident. 

Bryant Aaron, VPP representative with American Federation of Government Employees Local 987, was part of the team that visited the flight during its Gold assessment. 

"This team believes in word and action, not just what's on paper," he said. "A happy employee is a productive employee, and they take care of each other. People here enjoy coming to work because management is involved and concerned for their employees. It's a high point in this area. "

Installation VPP manager Sean Johnson agreed. Safety is not just a way of life, it's the mandate everyone understands and appreciates.     

"When this shop gets an aircraft, this is the last checkpoint prior to its delivery to a customer," he said. "This is a success story." 

No need for the spotlight though. Workers here admit they're just doing what they do every day: work, take care of business, and do it again the next day.

'I wouldn't get in if I didn't feel safe'
During one recent sun-drenched morning, Lt. Col. Dante Badia, 339th Flight Test Squadron commander, was getting ready to take up a 1978 D model for its first test. 

After leaving the flight line, the F-15 shot straight up into the airspace, the familiar sounds of freedom trailing behind. 

Pilots follow a standard checklist, running through the performance of flight controls, shutting down motors and restarting them, flying at supersonic speeds, and more. 

When asked how he felt about flying F-15s repaired by mechanics on the ground, the veteran pilot quickly pointed out, "I wouldn't get in it if I didn't feel safe." 

Call it respect for the pilots and their families; that same regard holds true for workers turning wrenches on the ground. 

John Kieweg, F-15 Functional Test Flight chief, isn't one to mince words when it comes to the urgency of tasks his team faces every day. He confessed that every maintainer under his watch recognizes and embraces a great responsibility. 

"Our motto is we own that guy's life from the time his butt hits the seat until his foot hits the ladder," he said of test pilots. "The guys (maintainers) probably hear that from me too often. Every time we have a wingman day or I'm in front of them, I remind them - when we put a pilot in that hunk of metal and send them straight up in the air - it's gotta be right."